Sandy Boyer (Boyer)interviews award winning journalist Suzanne Breen (Breen) via telephone from Belfast about the crisis in Northern Ireland that may cause the collapse of the Stormont Assembly. TPQ transcriber again deserves our gratitude for this work.
Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
29 August 2015
(begins time stamp ~26:30)
Boyer: And now we're going to Belfast to speak with Suzanne Breen who writes for, among other things, The Belfast Telegraph, has been honoured as the Irish Journalist of the Year. Suzanne, thanks very much for being with us.
Breen: Hi, Sandy.
Boyer: Suzanne, The Guardian of London says that the coalition government in Northern Ireland is quote “hanging by a thread”. Would you agree with that?
Breen: I would agree with that. It looks like it's really just the time of its collapse that's at stake. A very dramatic move during the week when Mike Nesbitt of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party decided that he was withdrawing his party, his Minister, Danny Kennedy, from the Executive. Nobody expected him to do that. They didn't think he would have the nerve and the bottle to do that. People thought that the politicians once again were going to turn a blind eye to IRA murder following the execution of Kevin McGuigan.
Now the DUP has been very, very reluctant to take action against Sinn Féin. It's talked a lot but it really hasn't done anything. It said it needs more updates from the Chief Constable, from the British Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, it needs to talk to the Prime Minister, David Cameron. But once Mike Nesbitt made this move that really pulled the rug from under the DUP and it puts them in a very, very shaky position because they are the only Unionist party in Northern Ireland prepared to work and share power with Sinn Féin and that will not be popular with their electorate. So they're now under a massive pressure to follow Mike Nesbitt out of the Executive.
Boyer: And one of their leaders, Nigel Dodds, actually threatened that they would pull out though they seem to be manoeuvering to try to delay that as long as possible.
Breen: Well the DUP, since they became the major party in The North of Ireland and since they ascended to power in Stormont, they have been mainly preoccupied - not really with ideological opposition to Sinn Féin - but with privilege, the money, the power that comes from those positions. So while the party certainly does not share Sinn Féin's political opinions – it isn't even on that friendly terms with Sinn Féin – it really wants to maintain its position in Stormont and it will be very, very reluctant to leave. Had Mike Nesbitt and the Ulster Unionists not decided to do this then I don't think there would be any chance that the DUP would be even thinking seriously about ditching Sinn Féin over the murder of a working-class Catholic.
Boyer: But as I understand it, they say: Well, first we're going to move for a vote in the Stormont Assembly to exclude Sinn Féin - knowing perfectly well that is not going to happen - but when that doesn't happen they are going to be between the proverbial rock and the proverbial hard place. It's going to be very hard - and their supporters would not be at all happy - this is, after all, the party of Ian Paisley - to have them sitting with Sinn Féin in government when everybody now knows that the IRA is still there and still killing people.
Breen: That's right. The sort of myths were exposed by the detective leading the investigation into Kevin McGuigan's murder. He said effectively the IRA hadn't gone away, it was still there, it was still armed, it was still prepared to kill. And when he spoke about that he did not know at what Command level the murder was sanctioned - that rang alarm bells in people's heads because they were thinking: he doesn't know at what Command levels!? That means that their whole structures actually remain in place when the myth had been that they were now just some kind of “old boys” association that got together to discuss their former years in the war. So Kevin Geddes (the lead detective on the case) blew that apart and that led to Mike Nesbitt deciding that he was taking his party out.
The DUP have always been the hard-line Unionist party. It was their supporters who made David Trimble, the previous Ulster Unionist leader's, life absolute hell. David Trimble was called a traitor. There was all sorts of threats made against him. He couldn't walk the streets of his constituency with his wife without bodyguards and yet this very same DUP went – did a deal with Sinn Féin - and was happy to remain in government with Sinn Féin – happy to remain in government with Sinn Féin, for example, despite murder of Paul Quinn in South Armagh in 2007. But now there is immense pressure on the DUP and I think it really will have to ditch Sinn Féin.
Boyer: And Suzanne, you were talking about the Police Service of Northern Ireland(PSNI) – now they're the ones who are supposed to investigate the killing of Kevin McGuigan and report and say: was this carried out by the IRA? was it ordered by the IRA? But you published a story this week that I think would make any rational person very skeptical that they could carry that out.
Breen: Yes, which story is that, Sandy?
Boyer: The story about how they went to Sinn Féin when they were investigating the McCartney killing and said: will you help us? I mean, this is the party that represents the IRA. The IRA killed Robert McCartney and they went to them and said: well, we'd like to talk to you about who we should question.
Breen: That's right. We got an email from Alex Attwood, a very moderate Nationalist Assembly member from the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) and in the email Attwood revealed details of a conversation he had with then Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan and basically Attwood was saying that Mr. Sheridan had said that following discussions with Republicans it was decided that the police would just focus on the actual killers of Robert McCartney - that they wouldn't go after people involved in the clean-up. But the clean-up of the bar was very, very important. This was when evidence was actually being destroyed: CCTV tapes were being destroyed, the murder weapon, the knife that was taken from the bar, was destroyed - so it really seemed crazy that the police would basically just ignore this - that the police were just going to say: We're not even going to bother investigating this. And this police tactic, according what Mr. Attwood claims he was told by a senior policeman, was because Republicans had said that information on the murderers would be more likely to be forthcoming. But what it looks like is that the IRA completely duped the police because no information on Robert McCartney's murderers was forthcoming - no one has ever been convicted. So the police just didn't follow the evidence as police should do but decided to make tactical manoeuvering based on discussions with the Provisional Movement, with the IRA, a totally illegal organisation, having input into the criminal murder investigation - a murder that it carried out. It's just inconceivable that this would happen in any other country.
Boyer: Well what kind of police force goes to the murderers and says: We'd like your permission to question some of your members. I mean, if the NYPD did anything like that with the Mafia we'd never hear the end of it.
Breen: Exactly! That is why the McCartney Family were so very, very upset and believed that there was never a chance from the very, very beginning of the murder investigation - there was never any chance - that Robert's killers would be caught. And you know, Robert McCartney wasn't an IRA member, he wasn't a criminal, he wasn't a drug dealer - he was just a guy that went out for a drink one night in a bar in Belfast and because he crossed the wrong people he ended up dead. And that is what is so horrendous and so scary about the Robert McCartney murder and so shameful as an action as well by the IRA.
Boyer: But presumably, this isn't just an incompetent police force, this is a political questions here. If the IRA was publicly named as the killers of Robert McCartney that would have been very bad for the peace process and we all know the peace process is the most important thing here.
Breen: Well, that is - that the peace process always has to be protected in Northern Ireland. So it's not like an ordinary police force where there is a crime and regardless of who has committed it there is one way of investigating it. It appears that when there are IRA members involved that normal policing rules actually go out the window and everybody tip-toes around it – doesn't go down certain avenues – doesn't do this. And what the McCartney Family were actually saying was the time to be making deals, if deals were going to be made in this murder inquiry, was by the prosecution at a very, very late stage where, for example, the prosecution decides to reduce or drop charges if people are going to give evidence. But you don't start making deals and deciding what you're not doing at the very beginning of the murder investigation because you never build the evidence that way.
Boyer: And Suzanne, again, coming back to the articles you've been writing – and again I want to tell people that if you want to follow Suzanne's writing you can do it on nuzhound which is a remarkable collection of every story everywhere in the world published on Northern Ireland - but Suzanne, you've been chronically the fact that this was not the first time that the IRA has been killing people after they were supposed to have disbanded - supposed to have disarmed - and you were talking that the McCartney case is somewhat known but there's a case in South Armagh of a young man named Paul Quinn who was murdered by the IRA, and almost no one's ever heard of it. Can you tell us about that?
Breen: The murder of Paul Quinn is probably the most disgraceful murder that the IRA has carried out in recent years because Robert McCartney's murder, however awful, was something that spontaneously happened - it wasn't planned. Paul Quinn was twenty-one years of age. He wasn't a paramilitary, he never held a gun in his life, he didn't have a perhaps shady past like Kevin McGuigan had – he was just a young lad, full of vigour, full of life, full of vitality, and he crossed the local IRA in South Armagh on two occasions: After a road rage incident he had a fight with an IRA Commander's son and he punched someone else connected to the IRA after that person had insulted his sister at a taxi depot. These were simply punches thrown they weren't vicious beatings or anything like that. And because Paul Quinn had basically challenged the authority of the IRA in South Armagh he was lured one evening to a farm in Co. Monaghan. Twelve members of the IRA awaited him and he was brutally and methodically beaten. Every bone in his body below his neck was actually broken. And his mother saw this pitiful sight at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda of her son with a tube coming out of his mouth and the doctors just telling her they could fix nothing. He was beaten with nail-studded cudgels and iron bars. And his friends who were being held in a barn beside the barn where Paul was being beaten could hear his screams and his begging for mercy. And his voice, they said, at the start was loud and strong and as the beating progressed it grew weaker and weaker and at the end they heard nothing. Nobody has ever been held to account for that murder even though Sinn Féin leaders, when they would go to South Armagh, would rub shoulders with the people who ordered and implemented this murder. There have been absolutely no political repercussion. They got away with it.
Boyer: And Suzanne, this is a really horrible story but it hasn't gotten a whole lot of publicity and you would think it would – I mean – that's a story if you know anything about the news business - that's a very important story. Why wasn't it covered?
Breen: It was covered at the time, Sandy and it did get some attention but it was basically let wither away and The Quinns were basically left just to live with their anger, their pain, their grief, their major sense of injustice. Because unlike, for example, the McCartney Family who, at the time, were able to tell their story and were able to tell it for quite a period of time because the politics of the situation then – the situation then was calling for the IRA to decommission, to do certain things, Stormont was up and running, the DUP and Sinn Féin were very much wedded in government - and Paul Quinn's murder was a political inconvenience. So nobody really chased it that much. And it's only now with the murder of Kevin McGuigan that Paul Quinn's murder is really back again in the headlines and that is, I think, quite disgraceful for the family.
Boyer: So unfortunately it would seem that even the media is cooperating to keep the peace process alive no matter what the human cost.
Breen: Yes, that's true. On the fifth anniversary of Paul's murder I was the only print journalist, the only newspaper journalist, who even went to interview the family and wrote an article. Nobody else bothered.
Boyer: So Suzannne, based on your reporting there seems that there's a pattern here. These aren't isolated incidents and that Kevin McGuigan is only the latest victim of the IRA. And so somehow people are having to face a very unpleasant fact: That the IRA never disbanded, never disarmed and is still in the business of killing people. And that's something that people, people in power at least, have been studiously avoiding as long as possible.
Breen: Yes. That's completely correct. There has been a blind eye turned to murder. I think so long, Sandy, as the IRA aren't killing police officers, British soldiers, Unionists, judges, for example, that they are really allowed to get away with killing what are perceived as less significant individuals - people from within their own community – be they just ordinary citizens, like Paul Quinn, be they former former IRA members like Kevin McGuigan, be they alleged drug dealers, alleged informers or people who have just crossed them in within their own community. These people don't carry a lot of clout so the IRA, for example, can get away with murdering a young, twenty-one year old Catholic civilian but it couldn't get away with killing a twenty-one year old Catholic cop because that would have political ramifications because it's regarding as affecting the peace process. The rest are just seen as “internal housekeeping”.
Boyer: But Suzanne, why are people facing this now? I mean, this has been going on, as you tell us, for a long time and suddenly it's dawning on people that: Oh My God! They never actually went away.
Breen: I think it was quite stark - the press conference that Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes actually gave. There were major media present at it. And when he spelled out that he believed that it was IRA members, not ex-members but people still in the IRA, who were involved in the Kevin McGuigan murder, when it was obvious that despite so many years after decommissioning they still had access to guns. Because in the Paul Quinn killing, for example, there weren't guns used - it was iron bars and nail-studded cudgels but this time in McGuigan's murder it was guns. And I think it just really shook the community up and it was, to give him credit, it was an amazingly frank and brutally honest statement from a police officer - something like we have never actually heard before.
Boyer: And Suzanne, what is Sinn Féin saying about all this? They must be able to realise that they are in deep trouble here.
Breen: Yes, well we have had Sinn Féin basically denying it all – still insisting that the IRA has gone away - privately briefing that is the securocrats again: and the securocrats and basically Orange bigots, as in the Unionist politicians, have joined forces in an attempt to put Sinn Féin down. We had Gerry Kelly at the weekend behaving in an absolutely ludicrous manner shouting at the top of his voice outside Connolly House: The IRA doesn't exist! The IRA doesn't exist! Sure, it put out a statement saying that in 2005! - when we all know that the IRA statements really are fairy tales and the IRA says things that are completely and absolutely false and untrue - you just can't take the IRA's word for anything. But I think Sinn Féin has very much been caught unawares by this. I think that because the Provisional IRA had got away with other murders Sinn Féin thought that the pattern would continue: That there would be a bit of commotion after Kevin McGuigan's killing, that effectively it would die down, that there would be no political repercussions and it now finds itself plunged into a political crisis and it's not handling it very well.
Boyer: And Suzanne, to bring an American dimension into this: You had a story that the pistol that was used to kill Kevin McGuigan may well have originated in Florida. What can you tell us about that?
Breen: That's right. There's a Florida stock broker turned IRA gunrunner called Mike Logan and he says he posted the IRA around two hundred hand guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition during the five years that he was gunrunning for the IRA which - the gunrunning began after the IRA ceasefire. He says now he massively regrets every weapon he ever bought for the IRA but unfortunately he thinks there's a good chance he could have sent the gun that was used to kill Kevin McGuigan. He says he worked directly for Spike (Séan) Murray who's the head of the IRA's Northern Command and he says that Spike Murray, he sent Spike Murray about twenty-five Glocks and compact Glock pistols which are very rare and Spike told him that the IRA didn't have Glocks and that he was the IRA's only route to getting Glocks. And last Thursday a fifty-three year old man, Patrick Fitzpatrick, who was arrested by detectives investigating Kevin McGuigan's murder, appeared in court charged with possessing a Glock pistol with intent to endanger life. We haven't heard yet any ballistic history of the weapons used to murder Kevin McGuigan but that will be very, very interesting to see if there really is a link with Mike Logan and the Florida guns.
Boyer: But also Mike Logan told you, and it was very interesting, that he offered to get Armalites and weapons that could be used against the British Army and the IRA did not want those.
Breen: That's right. Now, he did send some heavy duty weapons to the IRA - so that can't be denied. But he said he once asked Spike Murray if the IRA wanted AK-47s and he said to me Spike said he didn't. It was pistols the IRA wanted most keen to get hold of. In hindsight, I can see why. They want to use these guns in their own community to control any opposition, to intimidate and eliminate any threat. There would be no need for AKs in small neighbourhoods like the Short Strand. And Logan now feels very, very disillusioned. He said he believed the IRA had wanted the weapons for a campaign to force the British withdrawal and a united Ireland. He thought they'd be used against military targets and not against civilians and he feels massive regret and massive guilt that guns that he sent were used to end the life, say of the likes of - potentially his gun was used to end the life of Kevin McGuigan, former Republican prisoner and a father of nine.
Boyer: So Suzanne, where do we go from here? The Democratic Unionist Party is demanding that Sinn Féin make some sort of statement authoritatively saying that the IRA is gone – never coming back – but is that going to be good enough? And is Sinn Féin even going to want to make a statement like that?
Breen: Sinn Féin's not – with pressure on Sinn Féin – Sinn Féin's not going to be wanting to be seen to be dancing to Unionists' demands. I don't think any statement from Sinn Féin really would be taken seriously. We've had statements before that have been so palpably untrue - so just “out there” in the general community - I don't think that there is anything that Sinn Féin could say at the moment that would be believed. I think we're in a political crisis. I believe the institutions will be suspended and probably there will be some talks then set up to try and get them back on their feet but I would doubt in the current climate that those talks really would have any chance of working. What I think is most important, Sandy, is that on the streets ordinary men and women, regardless of their religion or their political allegiance – whether they're Unionist, Nationalists, Loyalists or Republican, really don't care if the institutions fall. The institutions have no credibility and they're seen as not delivering what's important in people's lives in terms of jobs, in terms of better public services, in terms of better opportunity. People do like the peace in The North but they do not like the process. It really hasn't delivered. We were told there would be a major peace dividend: there'd be jobs, there'd be investment, everybody's life would be improved - that didn't happen. And people just see Stormont as “jobs for the boys - jobs for the girls” and it has no relevance to ordinary folks lives.
Boyer: And just to refresh people's memory: If the coalition government collapses, as it looks like it's going to, that means that you'll get the restoration of Direct Rule from England, from London from Westminster. In other words, instead of the British government letting the local people run the show, at least to a limited degree, they'll just run it themselves once again.
Breen: That's right and again, there won't be mass rallies on the streets to save Stormont because really we were told that the DUP and Sinn Féin were two very hard-nosed parties, that they could settle down and do business, they could bring in legislation, they could make changes – none of this happened – there were only very minor pieces of legislation passed by Stormont. Stormont, as the DUP/Sinn Féin administration, had absolutely no positive effect on ordinary people's lives. The two parties just squabbled. They drew their salaries. They drew fancy expenses. But they didn't deliver for their constituents - neither party did - and that is I think why people are so switched off and so utterly indifferent to the potential collapse of Stormont.
Boyer: Well Suzanne, thank you very much and that's been a really comprehensive account of what we think is going to be the imminent collapse of Stormont.
(ends time stamp ~53:54)